“Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors – it’s how you combine them that sets you apart.” -Wolfgang Puck
Craft distilling in America is ripe with unique opportunities. Whether it be to bring a nascent distilling region to prominence, utilizing local grains to create a unique flavor profile, or forging an interesting and original identity to add to the tapestry of the American whiskey story, many craft distilleries are setting themselves apart in inventive ways. For Black Button Distillery in Rochester, New York, seizing all three of these opportunities at once was the goal.
Jason Barrett, the cardboard box salesman-turned head distiller who founded Black Button Distillery back in 2012, tells the origin story this way on his brand’s website:
“I spent a lot of time working with my grandfather in my family’s button factory in Rochester, New York. Our buttons were known around the world for their superior quality and I imagined myself running the factory one day, carrying on the family tradition. But there was one little problem – I’m color blind. Since making nothing but black buttons wasn’t an option, I decided to honor the values of hard work, entrepreneurship, and community that my grandfather taught me by pouring them into my passion for crafting spirits.”
Jason relied on his experience as a home brewing hobbyist, sought an education in distilling with Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Washington, and soon thereafter drafted the business plan that lead to him establishing Rochester’s first grain-to-glass distillery since Prohibition.
Now that we know a little bit about the man who founded Black Button Distillery, let’s revisit the famed chef quoted at the top of this review. Wolfgang Puck helped launch modern fusion cuisine and so he certainly knows a thing or two about using combinations to create something standalone, something great. It was in that same vein that the bottle before me today was created; a custom private blend curated by the gentleman of Breaking Bourbon in conjunction with Seelbach’s founder Blake Riber. In Breaking Bourbon’s notes on the pick, they make mention of the fact that Jason Barrett himself, along with some of the distilling team, were on hand at the distillery to help them make this selection. They go on to describe the process thus:
“The Black Button Distilling blending process starts with four base blends, each focusing on a specific flavor characteristic. The blends are called Spice, Sweet, Oak, and finally the aptly named Base blend.”
It was from these initial base blends that they settled on the end result, made up of 21.5% Spice, 17.5% Base, 35% Oak, and 26% Sweet.
The process sounds pretty interesting, in that many craft distilleries (particularly those that distill their own whiskey), don’t have the barrel inventory to provide a full-on single barrel program. Although Black Button Distillery does in fact release single barrel products, they introduced this alternative to provide a unique twist and keep their barrel stock in healthy condition. Along with making this option available to pick teams, they also offer a custom bourbon blending class several times a year for anyone who would like to try out the process for themselves.
In lieu of being able to blend my own Black Button bourbon at the distillery, I figured I’d do well to trust the palates of all the men mentioned above (save, Wolfgang Puck). Now, let’s get down to the specifics of this bottle.
“Aged a minimum of 4 years in 30 gallon barrels” adorns the front label, along with an indication that this is comprised of all New York State grains in a four grain recipe. That exact mash bill is 60% Corn, 20% Wheat, 11% Malted Barley, and 9% Rye. It clocks in at 94 proof (47% ABV); 120 bottles were made available at a suggested retail price of $65.
Black Button Bespoke Blend Straight Bourbon – Review
Color: Ruddy apple juice.
On the nose: Grape skin, chopped almonds, and lightly sweetened custard are the first aromas I detect. Each of them is delicate and well developed, and they’re soon followed by cookie dough and slight baking spice in a light and sweet assortment of scents.
In the mouth: Lightly sweetened custard, eaten with a Popsicle stick emerges at first as this creamy-meets-woody mix stakes its claim on the middle of the palate. Soon they’re joined by green grapes, along with a touch of thyme and white pepper. Toffee and cinnamon emerge on the back end as a medium-length finish becomes the most pleasant part of this experience, lingering with the refreshing sweetness of a no-frills dessert. The mouthfeel is as creamy as the custard in the flavor profile and serves to really enhance the experience as well.
America’s Native Spirit is at times derided for its relatively limited combination of flavors when compared to, say, Scotch or Irish whiskey. While that may be true, that’s not to say there isn’t room for more uncommon notes to strut their stuff. I think that utilizing a four grain mash bill underlines this point. Leaning into a lighter, cleaner flavor profile works wonders with this blend, as I found it to be equal parts approachable and enjoyable. In fact it’s almost refreshing in that it allows each understated flavor to shine, which reminded me of an amuse-bouche that Wolfgang Puck would be proud to serve. I’ll be keen to try Black Button’s regular offerings to see if they perform as admirably as this blend, because this is a combination that surely sets all those involved apart.